MSOM Fellow, 2005
What was OM like for you early in your career, and how has it changed?
When my OM career was getting started in the early 1980’s, there didn’t seem to be much difference between OM and OR. OM courses then were mostly optimization – aggregate planning, resource programming, scheduling, inventory control, etc. Descriptive models based on queueing were not yet standard in OM, empirical methods were rarely used, economics was uncommon and behavioral aspects of OM were just a gleam in the eyes of a few visionaries.
This narrow methodological focus relegated OM to the “quantitative methods” corner of the business curriculum. Fortunately for us, a series of OM-centered “revolutions” that began with the just-in-time movement, and progressed through six sigma, business process engineering, and supply chain management, pushed OM to the center of the business practice stage. (Indeed, OM has become so central that the blockbuster by New York Times foreign affairs editor Thomas Friedman, “The World is Flat”, was largely about supply chain management.) Simultaneously, OM scholars branched out into a much broader set of problems and extended their methods to the include tools from marketing, finance, psychology and other fields. As a result, OM has blossomed into a truly vital part of the business curriculum.
All this is very gratifying to me because I spent 12 years on the editorial board of Management Science promoting strategic OM, empirical OM and behavioral OM. I don’t know whether my cheerleading had anything to do with it, but I’m delighted with the progress we have made as a discipline.
Of course, not everything in OM is new. Ironically, I “left” the energy/environment area to get into OM. But we’ve now come full circle and the sustainability issues we were studying 30 years ago are on the leading edge of OM. I guess sometimes progress is cyclical.
What is your philosophy towards your research and how has it developed over the years?
I am, and always have been, a problem guy. While I love math and methodologies, I consider them subservient to the applications. My thrills come from having an impact on practice.
The best encapsulation of my research philosophy (I think it comes from John Bartholdi; if he didn’t say it first, he certainly embodies it) is
You are only as good as your problem.
This maxim reminds us that significant results only come from working on important problems. But it runs deeper than that. As Einstein said
If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it
I would use the first 55 minutes to formulate the right question
because as soon as I have identified the right question
I can solve the problem in less than five minutes.
In blunt terms, this means that, although you may get a (boring) publication by doing great math on a trivial problem, you can get a great publication with relatively simple analysis of a highly original and important problem.
What is a good research topic, and how do I find it?
This is the $64,000 question.
For me, the answer is “study the world”. I know that some scholars are inspired to do excellent research by addressing problems posed by the literature. But I have never been able to do this. My best work has always come from working on problems posed by practice. My experience has been that if one is willing to spend enough time understanding a domain, an interesting problem always presents itself.
In the upcoming 20 years, what do you think the OM field needs to do to make a positive impact on the world?
I know I sound like a broken record, but in my opinion the most important thing for the OM research community to do is to work on problems of genuine importance. We cannot change the world by studying single machine scheduling problems, newsvendor models, artificial contracts in two firm supply chains, etc. But if we focus on the really big challenges facing the world today – energy, environment, health care, education – we can make a real difference. Every one of these global challenges contains a critical operations problem. Without OM, we cannot hope to address them. So this isn’t just a matter of finding ways to publish papers. The world really needs us to work on the right questions.
What do you think a PhD student’s role should be as a part of the MSOM society?
Students are full-fledged MSOM members. They attend conferences, give presentations, submit papers to the journal, etc. The only area where they do not participate is society administration. That is a treat for after graduation.
What are some common misconceptions you observe that young researchers have? Do you feel you’ve made any mistakes?
Everyone makes mistakes. Listing mine would take too much space. So I will just list three errors I have observed:
First, as an editor, I have had the unpleasant duty of dealing with several cases of plagiarism. Thankfully, this is not a common mistake among scholars. But it is a very serious one. Misrepresentation of previous work, even one’s own previous work, as an original contribution is plagiarism. Committing it will have very serious consequences that can ruin a career. We all need to take the utmost care to represent our contributions honestly and accurately.
Second, I think that young researchers often think too incrementally. They read a paper they like and try to duplicate it. But this naturally leads to research that looks very much like what has already been done. This is why I encourage my students, and myself, to look for new problems in practice. We’re much more likely to ask interesting questions, and write original papers, if we study new systems rather than old papers.
Third, young researchers (myself included) tend to think research is linear. When they hit a bump in the road (e.g., can’t prove a theorem), they get discouraged and/or stuck. But research never proceeds linearly and always involves failure. The trick is to fail early and often. By recognizing dead ends early in the process, and shifting approaches, the determined researcher can always achieve results, even if they are not the ones he/she originally sought.
What has been the key to your success?
When I become a success I will think about this. For now, I’ll just keep working.
In you view, why is OM important? What significant contributions has OM made to the society and world?
OM is important because it is the science of productivity, of making more with less. In the modern world, standards of living are critically linked to productivity. That is why economists constantly refer to productivity increases. But they do so only in the abstract. That is why politicians always talk of eliminating waste in government. But they never do it. Only OM people, particularly practitioners, actually roll up their sleeves and make systems work better. So all of the efforts by OM people to increase efficiency by designing better production lines, more effective inventory management schemes, more resilient supply chains, more responsive health care systems, etc., are actually efforts to build a better world. Now that’s a discipline we can all be proud to be part of.
Any other comments or advice you would like to share with the OM Ph.D. students.
You are only as good as your problem. Life is short. Make your choices count!